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Suicide Prevention spotlight: Military behavioral health technicians

Senior Airman Brandon Haag goes through new patient paperwork, Feb. 9, 2015, at the Mental Health clinic on Scott Air Force Base, Ill. A typical protocol when a new patient comes in is getting to know the background history of the patient to help them and the provider they will see know what will help in a crisis or difficulty. Haag is a 375th Medical Group mental health technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Erica Crossen) Senior Airman Brandon Haag goes through new patient paperwork, Feb. 9, 2015, at the Mental Health clinic on Scott Air Force Base, Ill. A typical protocol when a new patient comes in is getting to know the background history of the patient to help them. Haag is a 375th Medical Group mental health technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Erica Crossen)

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Who has the most important role in military suicide prevention? Healthcare providers? Commanding officers? Other service members? Everyone? If you’d say “everyone” is the right answer, I wholeheartedly agree! Indeed, military suicide prevention requires the awareness, effort, and support of each member of the military community as well as those in the wider civilian community. However, one of the military’s most crucial suicide prevention assets, and perhaps one of the most unsung, are behavioral health technicians. In this article, I’ll highlight three of the many key behavioral health technician roles that support suicide prevention.

Role One: Crisis Intervention 

You may already know that behavioral health technicians check in patients, ensure completion of assessments, and triage walk-in patients. Triage includes safety assessment and dispositioning to the appropriate level of care, which is vital in identifying and aiding patients at risk for suicide. Behavioral health technicians use a variety of skills when evaluating the severity of symptoms, screening for level of urgency, and communicating this information to providers. When someone presents to triage in crisis, behavioral health technicians are on the front line and are often the patient’s first experience with the mental health system. A positive first interaction is related to an individual’s willingness to undergo care. Behavioral health technicians are thus one of the most important parts of the system of care as a positive first interaction increases engagement in treatment.

Essential to suicide prevention, behavioral health technicians can provide crisis intervention techniques and conduct safety planning with patients. They increase touchpoints for the patient, and offer the provider assistance with managing patient care and treatment. They provide brief one-to-one patient monitoring in high-risk situations until transport to a higher level of care can be coordinated. Behavioral health technicians also collect data for providers to use in completing risk assessments. 

Role Two: Outreach

Outreach to military units is another important role of behavioral health technicians in suicide prevention. Behavioral health technicians are low-stigma and can speak in terms fellow service members readily identify with. They’re often close to patients in age and have shared military experience. Service members may feel more comfortable with behavioral health technicians than officers or healthcare providers, so behavioral health technicians performing outreach to operational units are well-placed to support suicide prevention efforts. 

This connection is a key rapport builder, allowing the behavioral health technician to check-in with service members in unique and meaningful ways. When behavioral health technicians help overcome stigma and other barriers to care, it advances suicide prevention and supports total force readiness. With time and familiarity, they facilitate members’ disclosure of problems and increase receptivity to prevention and intervention efforts.

Role Three: Combat and Operational Stress Control (COSC)

In operational settings, including the combat zone, behavioral health technicians provide combat and operational stress control, playing large roles in prevention, identification, and early intervention of stress reactions and other problems. They are armed with effective tools they can offer at the unit level when issues first emerge, such as psychoeducation, sleep interventions, stress and anger management, conflict resolution, relaxation skills, and assistance accessing behavioral health if needed. 

Behavioral health technicians also employ proactive measures to address issues which can be risks for suicidal behavior (e.g., relationship stress, hopelessness). In operational environments, they have proximity to more easily identify those showing warning signs. Behavioral health technicians can actively address barriers to care, provide motivational enhancement, connect unit members with clinic providers, and consult on referrals, all of which contribute to the prevention of suicide. 

Suicide prevention is aided by behavioral health technicians in many settings that significantly contribute to overall suicide prevention efforts. I encourage you to take time to acknowledge everyone’s role and efforts to prevent military suicide, especially your behavioral health technicians. 

Dr. Anthony is a contracted clinical psychologist and evidence-based practice subject matter expert at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence. She specializes in treatment of serious mental illness and the consequences of traumatic exposure and is a member of the Behavioral Health Technicians Work Group.

For additional resources, go to our Suicide Prevention Month page. 

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